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Nicotine Tob Res. 2013 Dec;15(12):2088-93. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntt101. Epub 2013 Jul 24.

Just blowing smoke? Social desirability and reporting of intentions to quit smoking.

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Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD.



Do cigarette smokers really want to quit smoking or do they simply say they do in order to placate others and avoid criticism? In surveys of smokers, stated quit intentions and reports of quit attempts may be biased by social desirability concerns. This makes it difficult to interpret large-scale state and national surveys of smoking behavior that collect data through telephone and face-to-face interviews, methods that tend to evoke high levels of socially desirable responding.


The 2007 Health Information National Trends Survey used a dual-frame design to query smokers' quit intentions and past quit attempts in 1 of 2 ways: A self-administered mail survey (low pressure for socially desirable responding; n = 563), or an interviewer-administered telephone survey (high pressure for socially desirable responding; n = 499). Estimates derived from the 2 formats were compared to test for social desirability effects.


In both survey modes, approximately two thirds of smokers reported seriously considering quitting in the next 6 months (mail: 64.9%; telephone: 68.9%), and approximately half reported making a quit attempt in the past year (mail: 54.9%; telephone: 52.3%). Neither difference approached significance in logistic regressions controlling for demographics (ps > .24).


It appears that a large proportion of smokers in the United States aspire to live smoke-free lives and are not simply responding in a socially desirable manner to deflect criticism in an antismoking social climate. Future research should (1) replicate this study with greater statistical power, (2) examine the possible effects of survey context (e.g., health survey vs. smoking pleasure survey), and (3) explore survey mode effects in specific subpopulations.

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